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Restoring America’s Reputation and the Tragic Children of Fallujah

Mar 8, 2010


Last Thursday (March 4, 2010), some of the top thinkers currently engaging the issue of America’s image in the world testified on Capitol Hill in hearings before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs under the title ‘Restoring America’s Reputation in the World: Why it Matters.’ Joseph Nye of Harvard stressed the value of smart power. Andrew Kohut of Pew pointed to the fragility of the recent promising trends in world opinion and J. Michael Waller of the Center for Security Policy provocatively challenged the assembled legislators to stop and think: ‘Would I run my political campaign the way the United States government runs its strategic communication?’ Meanwhile a story broke which has the potential to put yet another hole in America’s already leaky boat. TV, radio and web-based news services of the BBC carried an alarming report from the Iraqi city of Fallujah by the distinguished correspondent John Simpson.

In the report Simpson noted that the level of birth defects in this city had reached such a scale that officials were now warning women not to have children at all. Simpson visited hospitals and clinics, met doctors, parents and children and viewed photographs of horrible deformities including a baby born with three heads. The hospital saw three new cases each day. The significance for the United States was the explanation given by all those he spoke to: the cluster of birth defects must be the result of the high tech munitions used by the Americans during the battle of Fallujah in 2004. Simpson noted that the defects were worst where the fighting was most intense. In some versions the BBC explained that rubble from the battle had simply been bulldozed into the river Euphrates and that the river was the sole source of drinking water for all the mothers of disabled children that they had met. The report mentioned depleted uranium munitions and the use of white phosphorus in the 2004 attack and left no doubt that at the very least there were grounds for a major investigation. In some versions of the story, the Iraqi claims were balanced with an interview with a Leeds University professor, Alistair Hay, who pointed out that no link had been proven, and a rather limp written statement from the Pentagon which disputed a connection and ended rather fatuously by noting that improvised explosive devices were also a hazard to public health. Of course, Fallujah was a center of the Iraqi chemical industry and the rubble would be a health hazard whatever else happened to the city, but the problem here is that this story is not really about scientific casualty, it is about images of mutilated children and America’s public diplomats stand to lose big if they don’t respond appropriately.

Think about the most powerful images of warfare generated by the twentieth century: the broken child in Picasso’s Guernica; the terrified Jewish boy with his hands raised on the streets of Warsaw; the burned girl running in Nick Ut’s photograph from Vietnam; the dead Palestinian child on the streets of Gaza. Images of suffering children penetrate like no other. The deformed children of Fallujah will haunt the United States unless it acts now not merely to intone ‘not my bad,’ but to show that it cares about the children whatever the cause of their illness. Could not the United States work with the Iraqi government to identify the cause of the epidemic? Should not the United States move to facilitate access to safe water for the next generation of mothers in Fallujah? Can we not all be part of a 'stepping up' of the existing international conversation about how best to build a future for people born with physical and learning difficulties for whatever reason? If the US does nothing, the images will merge with the familiar claims about the poisonous nature of depleted uranium. They will become further grist to the anti-American mill and a sap on American global power and influence regardless of whether Congress heeds Drs. Nye, Kohut and Waller and takes America’s ailing public diplomacy machine in hand.


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Unfortunately, you cannot

Unfortunately, you cannot fight conspiracy theory with facts. But here are a few things I found with a quick search -

In March 2001, a World Health Organization report stated: "no increase of leukemia or other cancers has been established following exposure to uranium or depleted uranium."

A March 2001 European Commission report concluded, "taking into account the pathways and realistic scenarios of human exposure, radiological exposure to DU could not cause a detectable effect on human health."

A January 2001 NATO report said, "based on the data today, no link has been established between depleted uranium and any forms of cancer."

In 1999, a RAND Corporation study on depleted uranium concluded: "no evidence is documented in the literature of cancer or any other negative health effect related to the radiation received from exposure to natural uranium, whether inhaled or ingested, even in very high doses."

You are right that pictures are worth 1000 words, even when they are not true.

Good piece, especially the

Good piece, especially the point about the US doing PD of the deed by working w/ the Iraqi government to actually figure out what is causing such defects, rather than simply trying to argue we didn't do it.

Thank you, Nick, for

Thank you, Nick, for reminding us of the power of the image more than any other to tell our stories for us.

Nick, you remind us with

Nick, you remind us with plentiful examples how war always reaches those with no quarrel, in this case the mothers and children of Fallujah. Obviously, to counter Matel's above comments, something horrible has happened to the health of defenseless people in this section of Iraq, and whether it came from the fallout of spent American ordnance or homegrown toxic materiel makes little difference.

What you wrote reminds me of Wilson's April 2, 1917 speech to Congress, in which he rationalized the declaration of war against Germany. Wholly different scenario, but his description of the innocents rings true. In the address, he remembered "...the old, unhappy days when peoples were nowhere consulted by their rules and wars were provoked and waged in the interest of dynasties or of little groups of ambitious men who were accustomed to use their fellow men as pawns and tools.”

Makes me think of a 91 year-old friend who fought at Anzio and Monte Cassino, an MD in the army who, at the end of the war, ministered to young (15 and 16 year-old German soldiers) in American field hospitals. By the end of the war, these "soldiers" were pretty much just unlucky German children with guns thrusts into their hands. But my friend helped save them, which was the right thing to do. Likewise, our advanced medical expertise should be shuttled over to Fallujah instantly (throw in a hundred homebuilding teams from Habitat to Humanity--I'm sure Carter would endorse this), not because of the tepid state of our PD, but because, again, it is the right thing to do.

And for a media that seems to be hanging on just long enough (despite the criticism Obama should be facing with a do-nothing first year in office) to credit our current administration with the triumphant turnaround that Iraq may someday celebrate through its efforts to become a true democracy, this same media should be taking this administration and its relevant departments to task in order to help out in Fallujah.



We all know that something terrible has happened. It is always hard to counter an argument ad misericordiam, which is why such things are so powerful.

The things mentioned are very unlikely to have been caused by U.S. munitions. The emotional appeal crowds out that rational explanation. That is one thing that makes PD so tricky.

Essentially the argument is that indeed a bad thing has happened but we didn't do it. The emotional rejoinder almost always wins over the rational truth.

You have a separate argument, which must stand on its own. Given that we have identified suffering, to what extent should we get involved, recognizing that such suffering in widespread world wide.


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